You can jump up, but bring $20 for parking. You can lime with your friends, but keep behind the barricades. You can wine yuh waist, but leave that hiphop head-nodding for next week. It's Caribana time again.
The most vexed event ever to attract a million people year after year, Caribana continues to aggravate on the downbeat and seduce on the up. Financial crises, management squabbles and media disasters hit like hurricanes, and yet the eye of the storm can feel so sweet. Toronto's own version of Trinidad's Carnival is 38 years old this weekend, prime time for a mid-life crisis.
For many, the Friday-night flesh parade on Yonge is now a bigger thrill than the Saturday spectacle on Lakeshore. Toronto's black population is evolving beyond Caribbean dominance; local-born and African-born blacks likely outnumber those with direct roots in the Caribbean.
All this is happening as Toronto's cultural stew continues to change flavour. It's no longer the WASP city flecked with migrant groups that it was in 1967. Now it's an Asian migrant city with a white ruling class floating on top, and morsels dropped in from the rest of the world. Some of those morsels are dissolving, some are as solid as green banana.
As the city changes, so do its rites. The Pride parade has surged forward to take up much of the upending rebel spirit Caribana once promised. The Taste Of The Danforth also attracts a million people to its gluttonous stroll, just one week after Caribana. And old-school Caribana fans now prefer the vibe at Afrofest, which is happily settled in Queen's Park, where Caribana vendors once sold beef patties and Trini flags.
So what's the fix for this institution? NOW assembled its own Caribana brain trust, people who've participated in it, watched it change over the years, and who understand how the event can be like stinging nettle - both irritant and balm, depending on how it touches you.
1. Bring back University Avenue
The first Caribana I remember was on University Avenue. I had a great time following bands to the end, walking back to the beginning, then doing it all again. I've never been able to recapture the fun of that experience on the Lakeshore route.
The city or whoever co-opted Caribana wanted to turn it into Canadian floats. You have floats passing by and people on the sidewalk watch them and clap. But Caribana is a carnival. Carnival is a call-and-answer thing, where the dancer or the person playing mas is one with the person observing. That's African, that's Caribbean, that's South American.
I still remember the smell and the force of bodies jammed together under the bridge at the end of University. Back then you didn't have to belong to an organized band to join in the fun. It was still very spontaneous.
In Trinidad you're allowed to parade anywhere in the city. Here, you're given a little place to go and that's the only place you can parade.
I personally think it had outgrown University and the best route is the Lakeshore. The days are usually very hot, and you have the water to cool you off. There's more open space, it's a longer space, and the parade had grown from 500,000 to over a million. People don't like change, though, and they had associated Caribana with University.
I remember jumping up with Afropan down University. I miss being able to get near the music. Bring it back into the city.
2. Forget Trinidad
I object to the Trini-specificness of Caribana. It can't be a Trinidad Carnival. The majority of black people living in Toronto are Jamaican. The Trinidadian people have managed to monopolize Caribana to the detriment of Caribana. You can't just have calypso. You can't have 10 Trinidadian trucks and have to beg to get a reggae truck in there someplace.
If you grew up listening to Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, you now have to listen to Jay-Z and Ludacris. Well, there are a lot of elements of Jay-Z and Ludacris in Trinidad's Carnival now, but the guys here have maintained Stevie and Smokey.
Caribana has to speak to the fact that there are people who don't have Trinidad as a reference. The memory that many of us have of the Caribbean is a Caribbean that we left, not one that exists.
3. Remember history
I have never lost sight of why Caribana exists: the history behind the slave trade. When people celebrate something so rooted in history, it means a lot to me. I just don't know if people see the genesis of Caribana or Cropover or Carnival, if they know where it all came from. I'm very clear what it means to me.
Caribana also celebrates African Liberation Day and Emancipation Day. It's no coincidence that it's celebrated on Lord Simcoe weekend, to remember that Lord Simcoe outlawed slavery in Canada back in the 1780s, before the Privy Council in London struck down his law.
I love meeting friends and letting my hair down at Caribana. But it's also a time to reflect on our rich history and culture. Every history has to teach us something. Otherwise, it's not a history worth talking about.
Caribana was started to celebrate Expo 67. One of the objectives of the people who organized it was to launch a big Caribbean community centre. It never happened.
4. More hiphop
I wish the Caribbean Cultural Committee didn't ban hiphop and dancehall from the official competition. I think those musics would have helped Caribana really come into its own as a genuine Carnival of immense power and creativity.
The kids in Trinidad tend to check Jay-Z even more. They will go to the hiphop shows and be practising in the steel pan yards the next day.
There ought to be a place in Caribana for North American black music. We live in North America, for heaven's sake. They're always talking about the youth. Well, the youth listen to hiphop; that's their national anthem.
5. Big up the youth
The parade is a gift that the older members of the black/immigrant community pass on to the younger generation. We should allow them to take this gift and shape it according to their time and their spirit of Canada, and not what the last generation developed. That way, Caribana will never be static and never out of sync with the times. The youth must be given a chance to lead, and they must be allowed to make changes, even radically.
Not only should new leadership appear, but the leadership should also reconceptualize the festival.
Caribbean-descended youth are some of the most creative in this country, and Caribana does not offer them an outlet for their creativity.
I would love to see some form of apprenticeship program where young people can learn to start building mas, so they can input some of their ideas.
6. Handle the business
I have spoken to merchants on Yonge who say that without Caribana they'd be out of business. The merchants know what Caribana does for them. The hotels, too. Some of that money should be returned to Caribana.
Every year Caribana runs to the city and the province hat in hand, begging for money, and has to go through a humiliating process before it gets anything. Taxi companies, hotel owners, restaurant owners, airlines, bus companies, rent-a-car places - they're the ones benefiting. It's sad, it's pathetic, it's tragic.
When I was a policy adviser to Isabel Bassett, then the minister of culture and community service in the Mike Harris government, Caribana was in dire financial need. Worse, Caribana had not accounted for years for the funding it had received from the provincial government. Ms. Bassett gave me the mandate to "try to save Caribana." This meant we had to be very creative, because the Harris government had eliminated almost all funding to the arts and culture, including Caribana. In the end, we got commitments of $1 million annually.
If you look at the Easter Parade in Little Italy, College Street is blocked off, the parade winds through, and the businesses on either side of the street benefit because people buy. Same thing with the Taste Of The Danforth. Caribana does not wind its way through the Caribbean community. There's the Kiddies' Carnival on Eglinton, but that's not the same thing.
7. Hug the police
Caribana was viewed by my white counterparts more as an irritant than a cultural festival. But over the years I have spent endless hours trying to let them see the benefits Caribana brings to this city, and now they do. You just have to look at how some of the officers get involved in Caribana. This has become a part of Toronto's fabric.
When I was working on Caribana, many times police, especially from the U.S., would ask, "How many murders will you have here tonight?" I would say none, and they'd say, "You guys hide your statistics."
As police officers, we don't pat ourselves on the back enough for the work we do in terms of maintaining public order, having 1.4 million people come to a parade and go home safely without any deaths. The few incidents we have had over the years aren't what you'd expect when you have so many people.
Toronto's street festivals are over-managed and over-policed.
8. Avoid freaknik
Caribana needs to do a better job of promoting the history and meaning of Carnival and mas so that our guests from the south - and some homegrowns - don't just see it as another Freaknik or South Beach spring break but actually learn something from being here.
We still have to turn Caribana into a true festival, into more than the parade and picnics on the islands. We should be looking at encouraging, presenting and preserving other forms of black Caribbean-Canadian culture: films, readings, theatre, painting exhibitions.
I make Caribana my own by going with a rich and varied group of friends. These friends cross race, class, sexuality and ethnicity lines. But what's most important is that they love fun and they understand intimately that Carnivals are creole spaces of pleasure and resistance.
I love that all these Caribbean people seemingly take over the city, if only for a weekend.
We have a great black literary community in Canada. What would it take for Caribana to have a literary event as part of the weekend? Harbourfront is doing that now, but what would it take for Caribana to do it?
9. Know that spectacle does not equal Carnival
I am Mr. John Brown, bus driver, but on this day I am the King of Siam. I can go back to regular life tomorrow, but today, don't touch the King. That's the essence of Carnival.
This festival helps in healing, by letting black and Caribbean people overcome their feelings of loneliness, being outcast and being racialized - if only for one day. This is real Carnival, when society is turned on its head and the rich are poor and the poor rich, when men can be women, when straights can be gay and all vice versa.
Caribana is a spectator sport. Toronto is an immensely creole space, but Caribana does not show that off.
10. Own it
At Caribana, we feel like we own the city. It's true. It's just a real nice vibe, and that's what my daughters felt. They felt empowered.
I love that all these Caribbean people seemingly take over the city, if only for a weekend.
It's not only Caribbean people who attend the festival and love it. African people from the continent draw from Caribana that whole sense of empowerment, for even a day.
I do not see Caribana as belonging solely to the Caribbean community, whatever that is. Caribana belongs to Canadians.
11. Cancel it
What if Caribana were not to happen for one year or two years? Things change. It's people who create traditions and festivals. People can stop them. It's like slavery. You will go along with slavery. Maybe you get a meal to eat, maybe the master is not kicking you too hard. You live with that for years until one day somebody comes and says, "No more." And it changes, the whole status quo changes because you say, "No more."
12. Forget the politricks. Lift ya leg up!
I have two small daughters, 10 and seven. Two years ago I went to Caribana because of them. I was so critical, but I was happy for them. They just loved seeing the floats, the dancing and the music.
I love to see all the different hairstyles on black women and the ways black men wear their clothes.
Come out and enjoy the Caribbean freedom, the Caribbean spirit, and that might trigger something in your life. You never know - you might become somebody else.
Afua Cooper is a historian and dub poet.
George Dei is a professor of sociology and equity studies at U of T's OISE.
Keith Forde is a superintendent with the Toronto Police Service.
Cecil Foster is the author of three novels and several non-fiction books, including Caribana: The Greatest Celebration.
Richard Fung is an activist and video artist. He teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design.
Carl James is a professor in the faculties of education and sociology at York University.
Dwayne Morgan is a spoken-word artist and winner of two Canadian Urban Music Awards.
David Rudder is one of the world's most celebrated and respected calypso artists. He now lives in Toronto.
Rinaldo Walcott is an associate professor and the Canada research chair of social justice and cultural studies at U of T's OISE.